India’s Pivot to Climate Diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific

Climate change is a very real threat to security in the Indo-Pacific region, with estimates placing 89 million people at risk of being displaced by the year 2050. The Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are facing the brunt of climate change with some of the islands likely to become submerged or uninhabitable in the next few decades. While the COP28 talks have emphasised the island states joining a treaty on phasing out fossil fuels, the talks have also highlighted to the international community the existence of a gap between the funding that these island countries have received and how much they actually require to implement climate action measures. India has traditionally confined her role to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), but of late, has extended her responsibility as a regional power to the Pacific-sphere of the Indo-Pacific region to cooperate with island nations on climate action. India’s pivot to the PICs by emphasizing on climate change is a tactical move to offer the island nations an alternative to great powers and to position herself as a champion of the Global South.

The Pacific Island states are some of the most vulnerable nations in the world, facing the very real possibility of loss of land, displacement of people, and severe economic losses owing to climate change. More than half of Vanuatu’s GDP was wiped out in the aftermath of the 2015 Cyclone Pam, while just over a year later, more than 200 schools were damaged in Fiji because of an extreme weather event. The region is thus, increasingly susceptible to adversities, including, loss of life and livelihood, reduced biodiversity, and food insecurity, summoning powerful countries to aid PICs. In the midst of major power competition in the region, however, the climate security challenges of the Pacific Islands are drowned out. To the great powers, USA and China, the Indo-Pacific is viewed as a site of geopolitical rivalry, where Pacific Island nations are often characterized as ‘pawns in the larger geographical debate.’ “Great power competition means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising sea. The greatest threat we face isn’t geopolitics, it’s climate change.” Accounts from the Indo-Pacific Islands Dialogue point out that there is a failure to recognize climate change as a major threat to the national security of Pacific Island states as well as a failure to direct resources to the demands of the island nations.  For instance, despite China’s Belt and Road Initiative including climate cooperation with the PICs, China’s aid in the region is tied to its political allies. According to Australia’s Lowy Institute China’s aid to the Solomon Islands and Kiribati increased from $11 million to $12 million when they switched their allegiance to Beijing. While the USA has pledged USD$200 million to the PICs, delivery of these funds has been delayed owing to domestic politics suggesting that the alarmed SOS response of the PICs has fallen on deaf ears.

Furthering this there is a lack of inclusivity of island nations at the multilateral level, who aspire to be included in wider conversations about the Indo-Pacific, particularly on climate change issues. For instance, island nations, led by Vanuatu, have sought an advisory opinion at the International Court of Justice on the application of international law to drive climate action, which will pave the way for greater accountability on climate action. This contrasts with issues, such as territorial integrity and sovereignty that are typically raised at the ICJ, demonstrating the nature of discourses that are of primacy to vulnerable states.

Another major obstacle faced by PICs is in obtaining access to climate funds and the necessary financial resources to further climate action. Owing to their small economies they lack access to private market finance and rely on multilateral funding. In addition, countries like Fiji, Tuvalu, Palau, and Nauru do not qualify for developmental assistance as they are classified high or middle-income countries based on measures, such as gross national income per capita. This demonstrates that such measures do not address the practical constraints associated with addressing climate change and the PICs have called for a deployment of funds directly aimed at climate action.

In this space, India has recognized these pressing challenges and has tactfully provided the PICs with assistance and has poised herself as the net security provider in the Indo-Pacific.  Since the 1990s, India has applied climate change strategically to claim its standing on the global arena and this has aided in binding India to the role of net security provider. In the Indo-Pacific region, India stands as an alternative to China and posits that it “stands for a free, open, inclusive, and rules-based Indo-Pacific.”

India has renewed its interests in the Pacific Island states, with PM Modi making a visit to Fiji and Papua New Guinea, the former marking the first visit by an Indian PM to a Pacific Island in 33 years. The region faces challenges in transitioning to renewable sources of energy. Tapping on this need, India has invested in solar power projects to power 2800 homes in fourteen island countries and in a USD$1.3 million project to install solar power in the official residences of the heads of state of PICs. In addition, grants have been allocated to Kiribati and Vanuatu for providing solar energy equipment, while a concessional line of credit amounting to USD$150 million has been set up for climate action-based projects for the island states.

Additionally, many Pacific Island states are full members of the International Solar Alliance (ISA), an international organization co-founded by India, that focuses on solar energy. India’s has led ISA on a path where solar energy-based cooperation has gone beyond the Global South-South partnerships to include strategic partnerships with developed nations as well. This demonstrates that India is supportive of the interests of the island states and posits that they ‘will have the strength of our voice’ during international settings.

Finally, to address the occurrence of natural disasters and disaster relief management, India has launched Climate Early Warning Systems in countries, like Tonga, Vanuatu, and Fiji. While, the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, an Indian initiative, has recently awarded 13 Small Island Developing States with climate resilient infrastructure projects, which directly addresses their need for climate-driven infrastructure. This demonstrates that India’s initiative has been towards addressing the needs of the region by providing infrastructure that takes on a climate-change perspective.

Despite these interventions, PICs still face obstacles in obtaining access to climate funds and the necessary financial resources to further climate action, which may require a concerted effort from the middle powers. These issues can be better tackled at the multilateral level with India cooperating with other middle powers. Resilience and security within the Indo-Pacific can be better bolstered with cooperation from Australia and France. Intensifying cooperative efforts to address climate mitigation strategies will ensure that development occurs on a balanced level, whilst addressing the geostrategic competition within the region.

Collectively, this demonstrates that while India’s extensive engagement with the PICs is a strategic manoeuvre to balance geopolitical rivalry, India has taken on the role of addressing the security concerns within the Indo-Pacific. India recognizes these nations as ‘large ocean states with vast potential’ and has been continually providing them with the opportunity to voice their demands, empowering them with the ability to address climate change in the Indo-Pacific Island way. There still remains scope, however, for ensuring climate action in the PICs by cooperating with other middle powers.

[Photo by Prime Minister’s Office, India, via Wikimedia Commons]

Lakshmy Ramakrishnan recently earned her MA in International Relations from King’s College London. In addition to her MA, Lakshmy holds a BSc and an MSc in Biomedical Science from the University of Adelaide, Australia, and Manipal University, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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